CITES can – and should – improve its remedial process for countries that tolerate unsustainable trade

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) needs to improve how it deals with member countries that do not meet their commitment to sustainable trade, according to a study from the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries (IOF).

On paper, CITES has teeth.

Unlike many other big, international environmental agreements, CITES can direct remedial action towards any of its 182 member countries that don’t meet their obligations. In CITES this process is called the Review of Significant Trade (RST). When CITES notices concerning patterns of reported trade, it initiates an RST and asks the country in question to prove it is trading sustainably. Countries that can’t prove sustainability are given a roadmap for improvement. If a member country fails to deliver on the requirements (formally called recommendations), CITES can suspend trade of the species.

Using the trade of seahorses as a case study, researchers from the IOF investigated whether the RST process works as intended.

They found a few big flaws.

“The main problem was at the end of the process, exports were no more sustainable than they were before the process was initiated,” said Sarah Foster, the study’s lead author and a research associate with Project Seahorse, a research unit at the IOF. “We have a Convention with a really important remedial process that is supposed to guide Parties toward sustainable trade, but instead has led to a big illegal trade problem for seahorses.”

Countries that can’t trade sustainably often choose to end exports, a policy move that is permitted by CITES. However, instead of stopping international trade, this practice can increase illegal trade. Seahorses have been a major casualty of this covert system. Indeed, research shows that 95per cent of seahorse trade through Hong Kong, a major destination for dried seahorses, is illegal. Most seahorses are traded dried for use in traditional medicines, and dried seahorses are easy to transport inconspicuously. As the demand has continued, so has the trade – despite the bans.

“We would like to see countries move away from export bans and back to implementing CITES in the true spirit of [the agreement]. This means actively moving the trade towards sustainability, even if it takes time,” Foster said. “I’d rather they took small steps to get it right than creating a huge illegal trade problem.”

The study “Holding governments accountable for their commitments: CITES Review of Significant Trade for a very high-volume taxon”, published in Global Ecology and Conservation, makes many suggestions for improving the RST process.

At the top of the list is ensuring recommendations that arise from the RST, such as creating a marine protected area or doing a study to estimate seahorse populations, are practical, clear and achievable within the window of time given by CITES. Precise recommendations would allow CITES to hold Parties accountable for progress.

“CITES recommendations are very lofty,” Foster said. “They lack any metrics by which to measure success. When they say, ‘Put in place a marine protected area,’ what does that mean in practice? Does a small, unmonitored, unenforced area count as success? Recommendations need metrics, reasonable timelines and need to be more specific to the problem.”

Meaningful recommendations would empower Parties to act and empower CITES to hold member countries’ toes to the fire, according to Foster.

“The whole process will work better for the Parties. Critically, it would also work better for the species threatened by international trade,” she said.

The study is critical of the RST process and of the ineffective outcomes that it has created for the seahorse trade. However, the researchers argued that the system is far from unsalvageable.

“The reason we spend so much time working on CITES is that we see it having incredible value and being a critical tool in our conservation toolbox for seahorses, and also for thousands upon thousands of other species,” Foster said. “We did this study because we want to see CITES be all it can be.”

[cross-posted at Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries]